Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 2, No 10
13 March 2000

Sam Vaknin A   B A L K A N   E N C O U N T E R:
The Expat Experts

Sam Vaknin

In Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll wrote: "Curtsy while you're thinking of something to say. It saves time."

What a missed career. He should have been an expat expert. To paraphrase a sentence originally written about women (no misogyny implied): "What else is a foreign consultant but a foe to friendship, an inescapable punishment, a necessary evil, a natural temptation, a desirable calamity, a domestic danger, a delectable detriment, an evil nature, painted with fair colours?" [Anne Baring and Jules Cashford, The Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image (London: Penguin Books Inc., 1993)].

Not unlike poor Mr Prufrock in TS Eliot's "The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock," foreign advisors in the exotic countries of Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), especially once moderately inebriated, are prone to dramatic monologues and musings, "measuring out their lives in coffee spoons" as they contemplate "the yellow smoke that slides along the street, rubbing its back upon the window-panes."

All foreign advisors belong to one of three categories: the hustlers, the bureaucrats and the corporates.

Dubious peddling

The first sub-species peddle their specious wares aggressively, flamboyantly and relentlessly. They present a picturesque assortment of quaint British eccentricities and pronounced professional idiosyncrasies. They often are under a cloud - but never in the shade. Sometimes they even flaunt their chequered past and colourful adventures. It is the only form of entertainment in the drab cemetery that is CEE.

In the hope of landing a fat consultancy contract with a confused minister or with a terror-stricken central banker, with a quadriplegic stock exchange or with a dying industry lobby, with sansculotte trade unions or with gullible Western NGOs, they gypsy around, living out of tattered suitcases in shabby hotels, yearning to strike gold in the next station of their mendicant's journey.

Of necessity abstemious, they would otherwise be (and indeed are when chance allows) containers of greed, avarice, gluttony and hedonism. Unfulfilled, they often deteriorate to colluding in obscure dealings with corrupt officials. You can find these hangers-on in every pub and bar from the farthest Russian north to the warm waters of Bulgaria, the same dogged look, the same mane of yellowing hair, the old-cut suits and sole-worn shoes and the drooling eagerness to gossip and to profit.

Contrast these has-beens to the bureaucratic breed. Ever the laptopped, they travel first class and reside in five star luxurious hotels strewn among the decrepitude of their surrounding. Unashamed, they flaunt shimmering utility vehicles and satellite cellular phones in the face of the unemployed and downtrodden they came ostensibly to help. Occupied mainly by scanning the daily paper and solving simple crossword puzzles, they disrupt their onerous routine only to wine and dine venal officials on mutually fattening expense accounts. They are the malignancy of Bretton Woods, a cancerous growth of well intended aid, the hideous face of altruism.

Their organizations are the dumping grounds of the inept and the unwanted, the professional failures and the embarrassingly corrupt, the egregiously ignorant and the narcissistically immature. They tax the resources of their hosts as all parasites do and give very little in return. Their advice is often wrong and almost invariably leads to adversity and woe. They tend to overstep their mandate and supplant elected offices and their humiliated occupants.

They dictate and intervene and threaten and determine with the callousness of those who lose nothing when their "advice" goes awry. In time, they move on from one political carcass to another, birds of prey with metal wings and the sated satisfaction of the well fed and the multi-salaried. Earning in a day what others earn in two months - they often hold their mission and its objects in contempt and scorn. They are content to climb the autistic ladder that is a multilateral institution. The rare are recruited by the private sector as third-rate lobbyists.

Incompetence in demand

The suborned politicians of this region have good use for these emissaries of defective micro-management. They hide their thefts and their incompetence behind a fig leaf of "they told me to." They blame their failures, their patently erroneous decisions and their marked inabilities on the negative externalities of the international community. An elaborate sign language of winks and nods develops in the execrable, fungal intimacy between native bureaucracy and foreign supervisors.

The "advisors" and "country managers" and "resident officers" themselves often come from shrines of good governance and civil society, the likes of China, India, Saudi Arabia or worse. They understand the secret language of power and quid pro quo. What better than a fat and satiated cat to guard the skinny and famished ones? So, they collaborate in the most lamentable manner, eyes closed, ears plugged, mouth stapled.

The bureaucrats author delusional science fiction, delirious potpourris of wishful thinking and grotesque projections, the customary backslapping and mutual admiration. And the politicians pretend to listen, patiently ignoring the more arcane lingo and outlandish offers, waiting for the aliens to take off to their planet and allow them to proceed with plundering and loot.

The third type of expert foreigners are members of academe or business corporations (the distinction is quite blurred in the United States). The infamous Harvard affair in Russia exposed the profit motives of these self-appointed and self-proclaimed do-gooders. It also elucidated their moral standard - rather the lack thereof. Scores of Western consultancies set up shop in CEE - accountancies, law firms, the odd professional. Western know-how on anything from wood processing to canning, from intellectual property to real estate and from publishing to brewing can be obtained.

Ultimately, this breed of entrepreneur-consultants represents the biggest hope. True, profit-motivated and all too willing to cross the lines for client, God and country - still, their thinking is a sound one, their ethos genuine, their goals are realistic and they seem to know the path. In their ruthless application of the admixture of drive and dream, they often lead the way - obtaining finance, converting others to the cause, constructing projects, educating, preaching and teaching and hectoring and, in this arduous, often derided process, falling in love with land and people.

Dr Sam Vaknin, 13 March 2000

The author is General Manager of Capital Markets Institute Ltd, a consultancy firm with operations in Macedonia and Russia. He is an Economic Advisor to the Government of Macedonia.

DISCLAIMER: The views presented in this article represent only the personal opinions and judgements of the author.

Sam Vaknin's articles for Central Europe Review are archived here.

Sam Vaknin's Website is here.


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